Check This Box if You’re a Good Person

Rebecca Sabky is a former admissions director at Dartmouth. And when she used to give college information sessions at high schools, she was used to being swarmed by students. Usually, as soon as her lecture would end, students would run up to hand her their résumés, fighting for her attention so that they could tell her about their internships or summer science programs. But last spring, after she spoke at a New Jersey public school, she ran into an entirely different sort of student. When the bell rang, she stuffed her leftover pamphlets into a bag and began to navigate through the sea of students in the high school hallway at lunchtime. Just before Sabky reached the parking lot, someone tapped her on the shoulder and gave her the granola bar she had dropped on the floor in the cafeteria. Before she could like the student, he ran off with the other kids.

In all her years of working in undergraduate admissions at Dartmouth College, Sabky had been introduced to many talented young people. Sabky used to be the director of international admissions and is now working part-time after having a baby. Every year she would read over 2,000 college applications from students from around the world. The applicants she says are always intellectually curious and talented. These students do everything from climb mountains, head extracurricular clubs and develop new technologies. They are the next generation of leaders. And the accomplishments that these students do stack up quickly. The problem with this deluge of promising candidates is that many of these remarkable students become indistinguishable from one student to the next, at least when you are looking at them on paper. It is not an easy task to choose which students to admit. And in the chaos of SAT scores, recommendations, and extracurriculars, there is one quality that is always irresistible to a potential candidate, and that is kindness. It’s a character trait that would be hard to pinpoint on applications even if colleges asked all the right questions. And every so often, it is a quality that just can’t help but shine through.

The most surprising indication of kindness that Sabky had ever come across in her career came from a student who went to a public school in New England. The student was clearly bright, as evidenced by his teachers praise and class rank. The student had a supportive recommendation from his college counselor and an impressive list of extracurricular activities. But even with all these qualifications, he might not have stood out. But it was one letter of recommendation that caught her eye. The letter came from a school custodian. Letters of recommendation are something that can at times be gratuitous, written by people who the applicant thinks will impress a school. Admissions directors regularly receive letters from former presidents, trustee relatives, celebrities, and Olympic athletes. But usually, they fail to provide them with another angle on who the student is, or could be as a member of the community. The custodian wrote that he was compelled to support this student’s candidacy because of his thoughtfulness. The custodian said that the young man was the only student in the public school who knew all the names of every member of the janitorial staff. The student turned off lights in empty rooms, tidied up after his peers even if no one was looking and consistently thanked the hallway monitor each morning. And with over 15 years and 30,000 applications in Sabky's admissions career, she had never seen a recommendation from a school custodian. That student was admitted to the school by unanimous vote of the admissions committee.

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